More than 300 furious people poured into the streets and, soon, the scene in the Frayser neighborhood of northern Memphis on Wednesday night echoed those from various other American cities in recent years: angry protests, bursts of violence and clouds of tear gas.
The chaos came in response to the fatal shooting of Brandon Webber, a well-known local 20-year-old, by U.S. Marshal Service deputies attempting to serve an arrest warrant.
Initially, police said Webber was shot about 7 p.m. Wednesday after he rammed the car of the marshals attempting to serve him and then displayed a weapon. Law enforcement officials said Thursday that Webber was wanted in connection with a shooting in Mississippi earlier this month and was considered armed and dangerous by the officers attempting to arrest him.
But little information had trickled out in the hours after Webber’s death, as enraged crowds gathered near the scene.
Family members said they were unaware of any warrants in Webber’s name, and residents spread versions of the shooting that suggested he may have been shot more than 20 times, possibly while handcuffed — details police have neither confirmed nor denied.
Webber is one of at least 406 people who have been shot and killed by American police officers in 2019, according to a Washington Post database that tracks such shootings.
As the crowd ballooned in size, some pelted officers with rocks and chunks of concrete, which police officials said left as many as three dozen officers with minor injuries.
“Honestly, [the police] did a good job of restraining themselves, even though they were being pounded,” said the Rev. Charlie Caswell, who has lived in the Frayser neighborhood for nearly 30 years and was among clergy members who attempted to soothe the raging crowd.
“People’s feelings were hurt. They wanted to know the truth of what happened,” Caswell said. “The stories just weren’t adding up. You can only expect the community to continue to have unrest until they are provided some answers.”
Those answers came Thursday night, when officials in Hernando, Miss., disclosed that Webber was wanted there in connection with a June 3 shooting. According to Hernando police, Webber had responded to a Craigslist posting of a car for sale, traveled to Hernando, and then he and the car’s owner took a test drive.
As the car’s owner got out of the vehicle, police said, Webber pulled out a gun and shot the man five times before speeding away with the man’s car.
It was that victim’s car, police said, that Webber was driving when officers attempted to arrest him.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and fully understand the frustration,” John Champion, a prosecutor for Mississippi’s DeSoto County, said of the unrest in Memphis. “But . . . it wasn’t something where they just went roughshod up to Memphis trying to find somebody. This was a violent felon who did not, obviously, want to go to jail.”
Friends and family described Webber as outgoing and friendly, and expressed shock that he would have had any outstanding warrants. Friends gathered Thursday afternoon at the local high school to give interviews about his life and their memories with him, and to call on a speedy investigation of his death.
“My heart is broken over the news,” Greg McCullough, principal of Memphis’s Central High School, said in a statement, which recalled Webber as a talented art student. “He seemed to really love his experience at Central High and he engaged well with others.”
Webber’s shooting came during a tumultuous week in Memphis, just a day after local officials released controversial body-camera footage of the April 2018 shooting of Terrence Carlton, an unarmed black 25-year-old, and announced that they would not file charges against police Lt. Andrew Brown.
The body-camera video shows Brown confronting Carlton — who had been identified as a suspect in two shootings earlier that night — as the man jogs down the sidewalk after 1 a.m.
“I’ll kill you,” Brown screams, as he jumps out of his patrol car. “Get on the ground!”
Carlton can then be seen curling up into a fetal position on the ground. When he rolls over, toward Brown, the officer shoots twice.
Authorities said Carlton “had something dark in his hand” and the body-camera footage captures the officer claiming that Carlton had verbally threatened to kill him — neither of which can be seen or heard in the video released this week.
Officials have acknowledged that Carlton did not have a weapon and had only a cellphone in his hand.
“You have confusion over how and why this is happening nationally, with black and brown kids being targeted,” said Michalyn Easter-Thomas, an educator and local organizer who grew up two blocks from where Webber was shot.
“You had a lot of confusion last night and today — a lot of anger,” she said. “People just feel like they don’t have any information.”
Community leaders hope the new details provided by police Thursday will keep the streets calm in coming days, although many stress that the unrest on Wednesday should serve as a reminder for local officials that they cannot fail to address the issues at the core of police and community relationships, especially in minority neighborhoods.
“One should not ever say, ‘Oh, God, how can that ever happen here?’ ” said A.C. Wharton, the city’s former mayor. “All urban communities, especially with broad demographics concerning race and income, have tension between law enforcement. You cannot feign surprise or shock.”
Still, Wharton credited local police officials with building a strong relationship with the community, in large part because many top officials in the department were promoted internally and still have direct ties to some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.
But in a case like this one, it’s not enough simply for local police to hold up their hands and point to the U.S. marshals, Wharton said. The more quickly the community can be provided details, he said, the more quickly tensions can cool.
“The people in the streets do not split hairs between whether it was a county deputy, a city police officer, a deputy U.S. marshal, or whoever,” Wharton said. “Law enforcement as a whole has a cross to bear — trying to prevent these situations ahead of time and preaching every day that they are not here to be an occupying force. That we live here, too.”